President Barack Obama’s visits this weekend to Carlsbad Caverns and Yosemite national parks give him a timely opportunity to think about how, in the twilight of his presidency, he can add to what has already been an admirable record of protecting America’s public lands and marine reserves. The parks themselves are in a celebratory moment, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service. But given Congress’ preference for partisan infighting over environmental stewardship, it is unlikely to approve any additions to the park system. Still, there is much Obama can do on his own using the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows a president to unilaterally protect areas of great natural or historical value as monuments when Congress is unlikely to act.
Of the proposals now circulating at the White House, four potential monument designations are particularly compelling. The most controversial consists of 1.9 million acres in southeastern Utah known as Bears Ears because of two buttes that loom over the landscape. Bears Ears is rich in natural beauty and priceless Native American artifacts that are increasingly at risk from the pillaging and looting that inspired the Antiquities Act in the first place.
A monument designation would earn Obama the admiration of conservationists and the many Indian tribes that support the idea. It would also arouse the fury of the political establishment in a state where the federal government already owns nearly two-thirds of the land and where powerful interests would resent the restrictions on off-road vehicles, oil and gas drilling, and other development that the designation would bring. But so what? Obama has nothing to lose politically and everything to gain in terms of the environmental accomplishment.
Two other obvious candidates lie underwater. One would involve a fourfold expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, created by President George W. Bush in 2006. The area surrounds the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and is home to an estimated 7,000 marine and terrestrial species, a quarter of which are found nowhere else on Earth.
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The other candidate is known as the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts, a dramatic group of underwater canyons and mountains rising as high as 7,000 feet above the ocean floor and located about 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod. The area is largely unexploited now; monument designation would keep it that way. It would also be the first national monument in the Atlantic Ocean.
One of President Theodore Roosevelt’s earliest monument designations, in 1908, protected the Grand Canyon until Congress could declare it a national park. But 1.7 million adjacent acres were not protected and have since been poisoned by aggressive uranium mining. A 20-year moratorium on mining imposed by the Interior Department in 2012 would be made permanent by a monument proposal put forward by U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz. Obama can honor the congressman, Roosevelt and the act itself by making this proposal his own.